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Ukrainian rabbis try to offer safety and shelter

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The stories out of Ukraine are harrowing, but for some people in the Jewish community, the war is an especially traumatizing echo of a history they never expected to repeat.

NATALIA BEREZHHNAYA: (Through interpreter) During the war, my mom and I, with our big family, were evacuated to Siberia.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Natalia Berezhhnaya was a child living in Odessa during World War II, when at least 1.5 million Jews were killed in Ukraine alone. Back then, Russian troops liberated Ukrainian Jews, including her and her family, from the Nazis. Now they are bombing her country.

BEREZHHNAYA: (Through interpreter) What am I feeling now? Well I'm feeling - fear doesn't begin to describe it. I can't even - it's hard to imagine that in 41, I had to sit here in this basement of my apartment. And that I'm going to have to go there again.

PFEIFFER: In Odessa, volunteers from the JDC, a Jewish humanitarian agency, are caring for her. And they shared her story with us.

SHAPIRO: All over Ukraine, Jews are looking to their community for support. That puts rabbis in the unusual position of helping people find safety while also helping them make sense of everything on a spiritual level.

JONATHAN BENYAMIN MARKOVITCH: They said to me that it's felt to be the same situation, like it was the World War II.

SHAPIRO: Rabbi Jonathan Benyamin Markovitch is a chief rabbi of Kyiv and endured days of sirens and bombs dropping around the city.

MARKOVITCH: We have basement in the synagogue. And we prepare shelter for people, not just from bombs. And we have food to give to people.

PFEIFFER: Local security officials asked Rabbi Markovitch to evacuate earlier this week because they were concerned he could be targeted.

MOSHE ASMAN: And I went out with about 400, the Jewish refugees from Kyiv.

SHAPIRO: That's Rabbi Moshe Asman, a chief rabbi of Ukraine. We spoke to him earlier this week when he was outside the capital trying to keep his congregants safe. As rockets fell on the city, he was still working to get people out.

ASMAN: Well, people call me. Hundreds people cry. And they said they don't have food. They don't have the medicine. And even I'm in every day under the rockets, under the danger of death, it's a very big privilege for me to help the people in the hard time.

PFEIFFER: We tried contacting Rabbi Asman again today to find out if he and the people he was helping are still safe. We weren't able to reach him. But as he told us earlier, he's been incredibly busy.

ASMAN: I'm busy 24 hours. 20 where I don't sleep. Here people come with, they come to our place. And then we try to take the buses to bring them to security places. It's very dangerous. Very, very dangerous. That's it. I have to run. Please, please.

SHAPIRO: Before World War II, millions of Jews lived in Ukraine. And the population now is just a small fraction of that. But Rabbi Markovich hopes that when the bombing stops, those who evacuated will return.

MARKOVITCH: I think now that a lot of Jewish population will get out from Ukraine. But when this war will end, of course, the people will get back. Bizataschem (ph), but this what I hope. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.